07/01/2020 No. 157
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Sino-U.S. Sister City Relations: Subnational Networks and Paradiplomacy
By Benjamin Leffel
August 1, 2010

**The full report can be requested from Otterbein’s Courtright Memorial Library**







The recommendations of this study are predicated on the notion that current and future Sino-U.S. sister city—as well as other inter-city—relationships can better forge their role as agents of bilateral international peace and capacity builders if they develop and advance certain key areas of their relationships. Namely, these areas are intersocietal communication via online venues; generational investment in the youth; intellectual capital exchange; and mutually beneficial effort in the advancement of China’s Western Development Plan.


Accordingly, the recommendations of this study are for Sino-U.S. sister cities to actively engage in the use of modern online venues—blogs, Skype, collaborative learning communities, forums, and other two-way channels other than email—that are emerging in the Sino-U.S. online community; for sister city relationships to expand bilateral capacity building efforts and intellectual capital exchange for the collective good of China’s development amid growth, and potentially for the purpose of assisting local-national compliance issues; and that Sino-U.S. sister city relationships should use capacity building and intellectual capital exchange to assist the advancement of China’s Western Development Plan (WDP) by a) forming sister city relationships with smaller Chinese cities within the WDP target areas, and b) utilizing rural-urban partnerships to help develop the rural areas within the jurisdiction of those smaller cities.


This study also has found that a greater level of trust can be established between Chinese and American sister city counterparts than that at higher level bilateral Sino-U.S. relationships. Among other structural insights, it also found that in most cases, the mayor of a Chinese city is normally the final arbiter in approving sister city activities, suggesting a significant amount of autonomy from higher tiers of government in the modern Chinese city’s management of foreign affairs. Finally, this study found that the strength of Sino-U.S. sister cities above other types of subnational bilateral connections is in its quality of providing immediate access to multiple sectors of each other’s cities, which provides for more eclectic relations to be established than with just a direct entity-to-entity relationship with no institutional apparatus.  [1]


The Sister Cities Approval Process


Interviews with the Chinese Municipal Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) officials reflected that the first step establishing a sister city relationship is to propose it to the Municipal People’s Congress, and ordinarily another proposal is sent to the city’s respective provincial Foreign Affairs Office, which will goes to the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) for final approval. Approval from both warrants the establishment of the sister city relationship. An interesting note is that some Chinese cities circumvent the need for approval by creating ‘partner’ or ‘friendship’ city relationships with other international cities, allowing them to bypass the need for this process. [2]


Local Foreign Affairs Governance & Independence


In measuring decision making autonomy of Chinese cities, the results showed that for most of the Chinese city government officials interviewed, sister city activities decided upon by the Foreign Affairs Offices must be approved by the mayor, and essentially the buck stopped there, unless the activity involved higher level American political officials (governors, ambassadors, etc.), in which case approval would be sought by the provincial level government.


Provincial Reporting


In measuring what amount of information on sister city/foreign affairs activities are reported to provincial level governments, the results showed that practices varied and there was no large majority to indicate a consensus, and only one FAO (out of 14) did not respond to the question. 3 of the FAOs submitted only annual reports on sister city/foreign affairs activity to the provincial government, 4 only communicated information to provincial governments about events that involved provincial-level political officials, another 3 both submitted big events and an annual report to the provincial government, and the last 3 had special practices in which there was essentially no reporting to the provincial government.


Citizen Participation


Chinese citizens are still not able to fully participate in the planning and execution of sister city activities, but citizens do still attend. Cultural performances, such as those held by Changsha, Hunan’s Little Azalea Art Troupe for their sister city of St. Paul, Minnesota,  [3] or performances by a foreign delegation in Changzhou, Jiangsu, [4] the sister city of Rockford, Illinois, are open to all citizens of the city to see.


Just as in the U.S., business meetings are proprietary and not open to the public. In Chengdu, Sichuan, the sister city of Phoenix, Arizona, students volunteers for sister city activities are commonplace, [5] and in Liuzhou, Guangxi, sister city of Cincinnati, Ohio, teachers and students have been part of a long tradition of educational exchanges. [6] The only city in which immediate future potential for citizen authority in organizing sister city activities seemed to be was in Nanjing, where some elements within their FAO have discussed possible plans to launch a pilot project of having a sister cities committee comprised of citizens to carry out work. [7]


Internet Frontier


The online venues already utilized by sister cities provide a good foundation to work from on other fronts. New York City maintains its sister city relationship with Beijing through Global Partners. The relationship uses an interactive curriculum facilitated through www.TakingitGlobal.com, in which young students both in New York and Beijing schools establish and keep in contact with one another as they do on different facets of the counterpart’s city and culture, such as business, entrepreneurship, and environment. Charlotte, North Carolina is sister cities with Baoding, Hebei, and has used Skype to create a live virtual classroom via internet for students on both sides.  [8]


There are also telling examples outside of the sister city arena: Retired chemist Sheng-Wei Wang started an informative forum called U.S.-China Friendship Exchange, Inc, at http://www.chinausfriendship.com, a forum including dialogue with by a range of Chinese and American scholars. [9] Interviews with prominent blog-owners/contributors and opinion leaders Kaiser Kuo, Kai Pan, and Jeremy Goldkorn, confirm that the Sino-U.S. online community is growing, and proper utilization of it for citizen diplomacy is possible, but not without such obstacles as the language barrier and lack of tech-savvy officials. [10] 


Local compliance


The capacity building ability of Sino-U.S. sister city connections may be able to solve larger problems than at just the local level. The weakening of the central Chinese government’s capacity to implement policy at lower levels over the past decades creates the risk that Beijing may not be able implement some domestic policies, jeopardizing its international agreements on trade and environment issues. Some of the areas of non-compliance include World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments regarding the prevention of local protectionism, [11] tax policies, [12] and policies for environmental protection. [13]


Economist Nicholas Lardy and others have pointed out that the U.S. should help this problem process to verify implementation at all layers of government—which would require the U.S. government to deepen its reach into Chinese provinces and spend time cultivating political relationships outside China’s bigger cities. [14] The existing Sino-U.S. local-to-local networks outside Beijing and Shanghai is alive and well, and it could provide a starting point for such bilateral capacity building activities. More research is needed on this possibility, and the most important area in which such capacity-building goals could be met is through the exchange of intellectual capital.


Intellectual Capital Flow


Interviews with the participating Chinese and American sister city representatives indicated that the two most common types of U.S.-to-China intellectual capital exchange is environmental technology and urban planning/public administration. The vast majority of Chinese sister city representatives interviewed emphasized improving environmental conditions as priority goal to meet through exchanges with their American sister cities. For example, Boulder, Colorado, has developed a Climate Action Plan with its sister city of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), that is aimed at cleaning up vehicular emissions. [15]




The commercial aspect of city-to-city linkages that many Sino-US sister cities have drawn great benefit from is the result of the fiscal decentralization and opening up of China during Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. [16] One of the sectors in which Sino-U.S. sister city relationships produce the most revenue is in University exchanges and international student recruitment. For example, The Ohio State University (OSU) is located in Columbus, Ohio, which is sister cities with Hefei, Anhui. A quantitative analysis of the revenue generated by OSU from undergraduate and graduate students for the 2008-2009 school year was approximately $1.2Million, with only 10 undergraduates and 39 graduate students. [17]


Small Cities


For U.S. cities to pair with inland Chinese cities is not necessarily having to settle for less. Because of the importance of developing the target areas of China’s Western Development Plan (WDP), the PRC government is likely to expedite U.S. partnerships with smaller, western cities over those of their Eastern cities. [18] Interviews with Chinese FAOs confirm that there is a general trend in Western Chinese cities of interest in having sister city relationships with the US because of their potential to help improve their economies. [19] At the same time, the chronological establishment of U.S. sister cities in China shows a trend—albeit small—of sister cities moving further into Western Chinese areas over time.


Rural Development


During the 2008 World Urban Forum, held in Nanjing, it was suggested that an effective way to reach the goal of more balanced development is through using rural-urban partnership to ensure implementation of more balanced rural development. [20] It is through the medium of such urban-rural partnership that U.S. sister cities can engage in joint efforts with Chinese sister cities in the WDP target zone to develop rural areas within those Chinese cities’ jurisdiction.


New Zealand, via the New Zealand-China Friendship Society (NZCFS), provides an important model to follow. NZCFS has been engaging in three rural development projects in China to help advance the rural community development portion of China’s Western Development Plan, all of which are facilitated vis-à-vis China-New Zealand sister cities. [21] The success of the NZCFS programs demonstrates how the strategic space for international development activity in China’s rural areas is open, specifically through urban-rural partnership.


Interviews with municipal Foreign Affairs Office officials inside and outside the WDP target areas, as well as with others, confirmed that potential exists for sister city-related activity to complement the WDP by helping to develop rural areas. Many areas in the Chinese countryside are ripe for international interaction because of the beauty of their mountainous landscapes and historical landmarks, which are quite conducive for the tourism industry.  [22]




Cultivating guanxi (关系), or inter-personal relationships with Chinese counterparts is essential to building trust. It seems that trust on the inter-city level between officials is greater than at higher levels of government. Most respondents on both sides with experience in multiple levels of government—not just municipal—felt that personal trust can be more easily gained between two parties at the inter-city level as opposed to higher levels.




Generational investment is one of the most important approaches to sustaining and advancing Sino-U.S. inter-societal connections over the long run, and the arena of education is the most effective way to do it. Seattle, WA established a school-to-school relationship with its sister city of Chongqing, which over time led to a state-wide Chinese language program. [23] Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty in 2005 led a 218-person delegation composed of high school students, businesspeople and others, to China in a trade mission that demonstrated how Minnesota was actively investing in their next generation to have an interest in China. [24]


Buffer to conflict


Conflict is both an intergovernmental and intersocietal phenomenon. [25] Given the areas of exchange discussed above, the inter-societal bonds created by Sino-U.S. sister city relationships have the potential to prevent—or at the very least provide mechanisms to the resolution of—localized conflict. If conflict results from development issues in China, the capacity building and intellectual capital exchange abilities of Sino-U.S. sister cities are able to remedy it.


The vanguard of citizen diplomacy in conflict resolution is seen in the work of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD), a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) using highly-specialized citizen diplomacy experience to build custom-designed frameworks for conflict resolution inside conflict zones. [26] Sister cities are not equipped with the highly-specialized citizen diplomacy experience and training of IMTD, and they may best model more advanced future efforts of conflict resolution after IMTD’s practices, or even in partnership with them.



[1] Telephone interview with a representative of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, August 2009.

2 Telephone interview with a Chinese representative of the St. Louis-Nanjing relationship, November 22, 2009.

3 Telephone interview with a Chinese representative of the St. Paul-Changsha relationship, November 15, 2009.

4 Email communication with a Chinese representative of the Rockford-Changzhou relationship, December 2, 2009.

5 Email communication with a Chinese representative of the Phoenix-Chengdu relationship, November 26, 2009.

6 Telephone interview with an American representative of the Cincinnati-Liuzhou relationship, June 29, 2009.

7 Telephone interview with a Chinese representative of the St. Louis-Nanjing  relationship, November 22, 2009.

8 Telephone interview with an American representative of the Charlotte-Baoding relationship, March 20, 2010.

9 Telephone interview with Sheng-wei Wang, President, U.S.-China Friendship Exchange, Inc., January 18, 2010.

10 Kaiser Kuo, formerly employed by major technology firm Ogilvy China, has been a long-time contributor to The Beijinger and several blogs on Sino-U.S. relations and technology; see http://www.china-speakers-bureau.com/profiles/940472.html. Kai Pan was the lead writer and editor of CNReviews (http://cnreviews.com/), a blog on China and business, and currently runs his own blog, China/Divide (http://chinadivide.com/). Jeremy Goldkorn is a new media entrepreneur who runs the blog Danwei (http://www.danwei.org/) on media, advertising and urban life in China.

1[1] Chen Zhimin, “Coastal Provinces,” op. cit., 19.

12 S. Philip Hsu, “Deconstructing Decentralization in China: Fiscal incentive versus local autonomy in policy implementation,” Journal of Contemporary China 13, no. 40, August 2004, 567-599.

[1]3 Alastair MacBean, “China’s Environment: Problems and Policies,” The World Economy, 2007, 292-307.

[1]4 C. Fred Bergsten, Charles Freeman, Nicholas R. Lardy, and Derek J. Mitchell, China’s Rise: Challenges and Opportunities, (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2008), 76-85.

[1]5 Telephone interview an American representative of the Boulder-Lhasa relationship, October 20, 2009.

[1]6 Yanping Dong, Sister Cities and International Relations, op. cit., 41-43.

[1]7 For the data, see Appendix D.

[1]8 Email communication with a Chinese representative of the Rockford-Changzhou relationship, April 21, 2010.

[1]9 Telephone interviews with Guangzhou Municipal Foreign Affairs Office, November, 2010 and Lanzhou Municipal Foreign Affairs Office, January, 2010.

20 World Urban Forum, “Report of the Fourth Session of the World Urban Forum,” UN HABITAT, Nanjing, China, November 03-06, 2008, 4, 13-14, 53.

2[1] Email Communication with a representative of the New Zealand-China Friendship Society, May 11, 2010.

22 A special thanks to rural China scholar Yixin Chen of UNCW for the conversations on this topic that we had.

23 Telephone interview with an American representative of the Seattle-Chongqing relationship, November 29, 2009.

24 Telephone interview with an American representative of the Minneapolis-Harbin relationship, June 19, 2009.

25 Herbert C. Kelman, “The Nature of International Conflict: A Social-Psychological Perspective,” in The Psychology of Diplomacy, eds. Harvey J. Langholtz and Chris E. Stout, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 64-65.

26 Telephone interview with a representative of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, August 19, 2009.

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Benjamin Leffel has just graduated from Otterbein College in Ohio, U.S.A. with a BA in Political Science. He is currently in Hunan Province, China continuing research on China-U.S. Subnational (city-to-city) Diplomacy which he began while in college. He intends to pursue a Master and PhD degree in International Affairs after returning from his year in China. He is also currently studying Mandarin at Hunan Normal University and working for the International City/County Management Association China (ICMA China), a local government best practices training firm. His work for ICMA China related to city foreign affairs is serving as his platform for launching his continued research.
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